Daniel saw the other two coming, and he knew what would follow, and he knew that he deserved it. But so had the cop. Later, he would wonder why, when everyone had gotten what they deserved, nothing felt balanced, restored, or otherwise ordered. Nothing felt like justice.
After it was over, the first cop nursed his swollen jaw, consoling it with his bruised and avenging hand while the other two massaged their scraped and indifferent knuckles. They let him lay there for a minute, then they put him in the car.
The jail was empty. Daniel curled up on a long wooden bench and felt competing pulses of pain from his broken ribs and his liquor-addled temples. After a moment, they collaborated on a monolithic backbeat for a voice just outside the cell.
"The fuck you thinkin', boy. You gonna stay locked up awhile."
Daniel said nothing, and the voice did not resume. His temples and ribs kept time until the next voice came in.
"That's right, boy. Go to sleep and see what happens." This voice sounded like it came through a mouthful of cotton. It belonged to the one he had hit.
"Knock it off, Stevenson. He got what he asked for."
Daniel went to sleep. Not to see what would happen, but because he had become used to the rhythm.
The judge gave him eighteen months and the state's attorney gave him advice.
"That means you get out now."
"What do I have to do?"
"Nothing. This is not a deal. But this office has observed that in the past nine months several other offenders who have made commitments to the armed forces have received reduced sentences."
Daniel had thought about the army before. He was fifteen when the World Trade Center came down, and it was the first time he'd thought of New York City as part of his country. Before that, it had been a mythical somewhere in which people either mugged or ignored each other, an endless horizon of tall buildings on TV, or a cacophony of voices that refused to keep quiet while other Americans were trying to agree.
Lebanon, Virginia was a long way from New York City, but they were bound by a law that declared them bound. Daniel's daddy used to tell him that what was law and what was right weren't always the same thing. Then he demonstrated this by leaving and ducking out on support payments. Still, the law was the law.
When the planes hit, he didn't think about the law. He thought instead of a time he and his daddy had gone fishing with his cousins from Pennsylvania. They had tethered their boats together when they saw the storm approach.
It was moving fast, and they were in the middle of a deep and wide lake. Uncle Jake and Daniel's daddy didn't get along at all, but they would go fishing together once a year "for the kids." Only, the kids hated each other. Daniel's cousin Caleb gave him snakebites, and Caleb's sister Anne would try to kiss Daniel and then tell it the other way to her daddy. The trip was actually a way for Daniel's daddy and Uncle Jake to measure themselves against one another in fish, kids, beers, and, occasionally, punches.
When the black clouds moved across the lake that day, Uncle Jake, Caleb, and Anne huddled together in their boat, Daniel and his daddy in theirs. The two fathers sipped from bottles and stared at each other across the water, beneath which a slack rope lay hidden, each imagining that the storm had somehow been summoned by the other. The wind came up, abruptly and fiercely, and the rope rose from the water and snapped taut. The brothers dropped their bottles and abandoned their pretenses of culpability. Neither could invoke darkness any more than he could turn it back. Common curses and prayers ran the length of the rope between them.
When the planes hit, Daniel remembered the rope, and he wanted to do what was right. He knew he would not cower and mutter curses or prayers, but he didn't know what else to do. The television promised justice, but all the men in the planes were already dead. The President, a man from Texas, began to talk about Iraq. Texas was even farther away than New York. As far as Daniel could tell, there was nothing between the dead men and Iraq but a vast expanse of cold ocean. But he knew that sometimes moorings were slack and hidden beneath water.
He was too young to enlist, and the law was the law. He watched the older boys from his school grow grim, graduate, and disappear.
Daniel signed two documents. One gave the state of Virginia his time served, and the other gave the army his time to come. He went to Fort Benning, Georgia where he learned how to use a bayonet, throw a grenade, and put on a gas mask with one hand. The rope still hadn't surfaced, but enough people outside the base were convinced that it was there to make the people inside the base get on airplanes and ships. Most people inside the base didn't claim to know whether it was there or not. The law said that they were to kill whoever they were told to kill, and the law was the law.
The cop knew his daddy. He had called him a chickenshit and said he had a faggot for a son. Daniel hadn't hit him yet, but he knew then that he would. He would do what was right and the cop would do what he had to do.
"Ima lock you up for the next ten years. What do you all think about that?"
"For crashing my car?"
"Damage to public property. Jeopardizin' the public safety. Drunk and disorderly."
"A rusty road sign on a road don't nobody ever take, 'cept no 'count cops, and a empty bottle can't nobody prove is mine. Fuck you, officer."
"I'd be doin' you a favor."
"Save you from going chickenshit like your old man. And prison never hurt no faggot that I ever heard of."
Daniel watched his hand curl into a fist as it slammed it into the cop's mouth.
When Daniel arrived in Iraq nobody was looking for the rope anymore, and nobody had found any of the poison products that had taken its place. Now they were fighting for democracy. They'd gotten word that there were opponents of democracy under a bridge near Noah's Tomb. Daniel didn't know which seemed less real--the mythic tomb of a long dead patriarch or the presence of living people in the tangible sand that would shoot at them.
He lobbed a grenade next to Noah's Tomb and waited. It exploded and they spilled out from under the bridge, yelling, bleeding, shooting.
They killed all but one of them, and they captured the lone remainder. The sergeant thrust the prisoner forward and addressed the soldiers.
"This motherfucker was toasting his fellow ragheads with goat-piss liquor when the towers came down. Weren't you motherfucker?"
The man was silent.
"This motherfucker just tried to kill every last one of you. Didn't you motherfucker?"
A few of the men muttered threats. The sergeant smiled at them.
"Gentlemen. The United States abides, at all times, by the Geneva Conventions. The prisoner, as per the Third Convention, will receive meals, an adequate supply of water, and appropriate medical care. If any of these things are found stuffed up his ass, the perpetrators of the unlawful act will face court martial. If the prisoner is a deranged fuck who puts things up his own ass, this is beyond the purview of the Geneva Conventions. Do you understand?"
They marched back to base behind the prisoner.
Daniel could see the firefight now. He formed an image of what had only minutes ago been the deafening staccato of his M16, the null taste of rising dust, and the acrid smell of a hot muzzle. He could see now the sounds of his M16 corresponding to falling bodies, the bullets making referents out of human flesh.
"How many do you think there were?" Said the soldier next to him, a corporal from Colorado named Davis.
"Do you think the sergeant wants us to fuck him up?" He nodded toward the front of the procession, his eager eyes never leaving Daniel's.
"We've been instructed to honor the Geneva Conventions."
"Yeah," panted the corporal. "But don't you think--"
Davis looked down, and his breathing slowed. "Yeah. It wouldn't be right, would it."
"The law's the law."
Back at camp, the prisoner was led to a tent. He was cuffed to a pole inside the tent, and Daniel was assigned guard duty.
The prisoner was much older than Daniel, maybe forty-five. He had flecks of grey in his beard, permanent furrows in his forehead. Still, they were both soldiers, they'd both worn handcuffs, and neither of them had ever been to New York.
"I'm gonna uncuff you as per the Third Geneva Convention. If you come at me, I will shoot you as per self-defense. Understand?"
The prisoner said nothing.
"You speak Arabic, right? We'll get you all a translator as soon as we can."
"Wha tees 'all'?"
"Wha tees all. I am person."
"You speak English?"
"Leedle beet. Wha tees 'all'? I am only one of the person."
"It just means you."
"I am Farouq."
"It just means you, Farouq."
That evening, Davis came to the tent. "Sergeant wants to see you. I'll watch Chuck."
The sergeant stood in the middle of his tent, the top of his head flush with the canvas. "It is my duty to inquire about the prisoner's welfare. Are the prisoner's needs being met in accordance with the Third Convention?"
"Sir, the prisoner does not have a cot, and he has requested a copy of the Koran."
The sergeant's face did not move, but a cold glow emanated from his eyes. "Are the prisoner's needs being met in accordance with the Third Convention?"
"I require an affirmative or negative response."
"Sir, mostly yes, but--"
"Thank you, Private. Dismissed."
Daniel walked back to the tent, where Davis stood erect, looking off into the distance, rifle at the ready. He gave no indication that he could hear the shrieks from inside the tent.
"Let me in there Davis."
"Corporal, let me in to see the prisoner right fucking now, sir."
"Stand down, Private."
Daniel punched him in the mouth and went in.
Two soldiers stood over the body with their backs to Daniel. One was still going, letting the last driblets of piss drop down. The other was zipping up.
"You all are done here. Get the fuck out."
"He got what we owed him."
"So will you. Get the fuck gone."
Farouq lay motionless, and for a moment Daniel thought he might be dead. He was not dead, but he would no longer speak to Daniel. Or perhaps he could not speak. His mouth was swollen and purple. Daniel moved his own cot into the tent for Farouq, and brought him water and food, which Farouq left untouched at the foot of the cot.
The next morning, when Daniel came to collect the uneaten food, he didn't notice the missing fork until its one remaining, painstakingly filed, tine was nearly planted in his neck.
"You all ees lie!"
Daniel caught Farouq's wrist with one hand while he drew and fired with the other.
The sergeant made it very clear that soldiers on medical leave should expect to return to duty after convalescence. He noted that soldiers who receive medical discharges should not expect jackshit. He told Daniel that he needed assistance to complete the paperwork, as he had left his spectacles in the mess tent. Specifically, he needed to know which form he should sign. Daniel's papers came through with unusual speed, and he came home the following June. The DOD made it very clear that the money Daniel received after his discharge was not a salary, but rather a contingent payment that may or may not continue.
It was a summer of reckoning.
Daniel read about the two soldiers who were court-martialed for violating the Third Geneva Convention in contravention of direct orders from a sergeant. The cop he had hit was caught with a fourteen year old girl in his patrol car, and he was suspended without pay pending a trial. Uncle Jake had run into Daniel's daddy somewhere up north, and he had shaken a few dollars out of him. At least that's what the letter to his mama that came with the check said.
Daniel lay still in the bottom of what used to be his daddy's boat as it drifted, untethered, on the deep wide lake. The lake was likewise still. He thought about New York City and Noah's Tomb. He thought about the lake. He couldn't imagine how these places were all in the same world. Maybe they weren't. He spent most of the summer on his back unsettled by the undulations of his daddy's drifting boat.
He reenlisted that fall. Not because he thought it was the right thing to do, or because the law said he had to, but because he had become used to the rhythm.
BIO: Damon Barta lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he disingenuously romanticizes the prairie winters of his youth and pretends to loathe the rain. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, Foundling Review, JMWW, and The Dirty Napkin